The Celtic Champions League approach that is most likely to rough up the elite
Too often in recent years, the experience of watching Celtic in the Champions League has felt like witnessing lambs being led to slaughter.
In each of the last three Champions League group stages that Celtic have made, 13-14, 16-17, and 17-18, the team have conceded at least six in one away game, twice to Barcelona, and then to PSG in the latter-most.
In 13-14, the Bhoys went to the Nou Camp for something of a Matchday 6 free hit having already been eliminated from the competition in the previous round of fixtures, and returned home with a hiding. The two heavy losses under Brendan Rodgers occurred as the Irishman tempered his usual possession-based style to try and contain Celtic’s opponents, to disastrous results.
To a certain degree, results like this are inevitable at this level of competition. As European football’s financial disparity between the richest and poorest grows into a greater chasm each passing year, it becomes more likely that the lowest ranked teams will face a trouncing at some point.
Many of the unfancied Pot 4 teams, themselves champions of their own national leagues, will adapt their natural style to one more focused on containing their vastly superior opponents, which feels like a natural, pragmatic response at a first glance.
However, dominant sides in each top five leagues, even Manchester City and Liverpool despite the Premier League’s much-lauded competitiveness, will face a low defensive block most weeks. It is the bread and butter of these all-conquering teams to find ways through opponents who choose to sit in.
For Postecoglou’s Celtic, it makes little sense to play into these teams’ hands and allow them to play their natural game – play as they do domestically. As risky as it appears on paper, the most pragmatic option for the Aussie when it comes to the Champions League is to encourage his players to continue in his intended philosophy, and aggressively press their opponents.
Celtic have a squad almost entirely recruited and chosen to play in the manager’s style. Despite an admirable backs-to-the-wall penalty box defence in last season’s 2-1 win in the title run-in at Ibrox, Celtic don’t invite teams into their defensive third for a reason, and shouldn’t start when facing European football’s elite.
The gulf in quality means that in some cases even the most perfectly executed tactical plan will still end in acrimony – the side’s goal difference in tatters. However, it’s far more beneficial – and enlightening for the manager who forever talks about looking beyond the scoreboard – for Celtic to have been beaten playing the side’s natural game, than to have attempted to stifle the opponents in a low block and still lost regardless, even if the outcome is the same in the table.
This isn’t to say that Celtic should be reckless, or foolhardy in these games, but that they should be decisive, positive, and adhere to the manager’s instructions to the very letter. Pressure will inevitably come, but its in those moments that Postecoglou’s players must remain calm and play as he intends, not resorting to launching the ball at the first sign of trouble. If results are to come at all for Celtic in Europe in this season, this is how they’ll find them.
No longer should Celtic be lambs to the slaughter in the Champions League – it’s time to let Postecoglou’s lions roar.